Farmer-managed natural regeneration (FMNR) is being promoted for restoration beyond its original range in the Sahel. FMNR involves farmers selecting and managing natural regeneration on their fields, while keeping them under the primary function of agricultural production. However, little is known about what regenerates in different contexts, even though this underlies potential restoration impact. Here we assess how human impact, land degradation and dispersal limitation affect structural and functional properties of regeneration across 316 plots in agroforestry parklands of Ghana and Burkina Faso. We found that intensity of land use (grazing and agricultural practices) and dispersal limitation inhibited regeneration, while land degradation did not. Functional composition of regenerating communities shifted towards shorter statured, small-seeded and conservative strategies with intensity of land use. We conclude that the presence of trees of desired species in the vicinity is a precondition for successfully implementing FMNR for restoration, and that regeneration needs to be protected from grazing. Assessment of regeneration potential is imperative for scaling out FMNR and where natural regeneration will be insufficient to achieve restoration targets, FMNR needs to be complemented with tree planting.